Gris-Gris, an online journal of literature, culture & the arts

When I Borrow Cuba

by Anna Schachner

Elena Lopez was eight years old when she was my best friend in 1970, in Charlotte, North Carolina, my birthplace, where even in Saint Patrick’s elementary school a few of the nuns were already buying into the optimism of a new decade and abandoning their habits. “You would not see this in Cuba, even before Castro,” I heard Elena’s mother mumble one afternoon, when she picked up the two of us after school in the family station wagon that somehow always smelled of things I came to recognize as garlic and shoe paste. Inside, as usual, four younger Lopez children sat thigh to thigh on the backseat, unified by a mop of dark hair that defied all rules of discipline, rolling down the windows to smile at passing students—a familial willingness to talk to strangers that terrified their mother. Mrs. Lopez seemed nervous to me. “It’s because she’s still new,” Elena told me once. The Lopez family had been in the United States eight years at that point, too long for them to continue thinking of Elena as their “American souvenir,” as Mr. Lopez sometimes referred to all the children, yet too soon for the idea of permanency to have taken hold.

Mrs. Lopez kept Cuba extant and alive in her family, which did not leave much energy for sternness or punishment or rules. Despite her nervousness or maybe because of it, she ran the household in the same manner that she walked, languidly, her hips out loose in the world the way she didn’t want her children to be. Years later, I, a visitor with a visa, saw this walk again and again on the streets of Cuba: an ease with sexuality, something no other mother I knew in Charlotte possessed. And for Mrs. Lopez it was as easily transportable as some other things were not.

The cool island breezes, for example, could not be put in a suitcase, shrink-wrapped at the airport (as anyone who has passed through the one in Miami has seen), and released in the U.S. The palm trees, with their many hands reaching for the sky, could not be replicated, even in North Carolina in August where the heat and humidity made the front porch the living room and a Coke in a green glass bottles a trophy. Mrs. Lopez would have none of the new window units like the one my father was installing, so the summer temperatures inside—barely a distinction between those outside—the Lopez house were hovering and heavy, made more so by the frenetic energy of five kids who themselves were never dirty but always getting into things—their father’s old-fashioned fountain pens, the chocolate glaze on homemade gallettas, their mother’s red lipstick—that were.

The only thing that Mrs. Lopez succeeded at forbidding was the concept of cold, so all of the Lopez children assumed that any day over 40 degrees was tropical. Their activities—croquet and kickball and the always-rowdy family baseball games—spewed into the yard like the gifts of food from the frequent boxes arriving from Miami. Charlotte did not have any decent Cuban grocery stores, which was okay with Elena, who preferred the local A & P because she didn’t know any differently and because she and the next two oldest Lopez children played hop scotch on the black and white tiled floors as the manager looked sternly down from his second-floor glass cubicle.

Still, there was decorum in the Lopez house. Each weekday afternoon, Mrs. Lopez checked Elena’s Josie and the Pussycats lunchbox to verify that the contents had been consumed during the course of the day. Elena brought flan to school for lunch, which she extracted first from her lunchbox, before the platanos and tamales. She traded the small Tupperware container of flan for my oatmeal sandwich cookie almost everyday, and even as a kid I knew that she was trying to rid herself of her Cuban-ness. After all, she had never been there. When she was brave enough to tell her mother about these food swaps, Mrs. Lopez said there were days, sad days, when she wouldn’t eat the flan either—it was too disappointing, recreating the color of Cuban skin in the sticky, crystalized sugar at the bottom of her best saucepan. But I loved it: caramel Cuban ice cream minus the crunching ice in the hand churner powered by my father after he played “Red Light, Green Light” or “Mother, May I?” with my sisters and me on the front lawn.

I also liked listening to Elena’s mother. She had lots of languages: Spanish, hysterics, prayer that sounded like (at least in tone) my Christmas wish list, those hips. Even her broken English was somehow made prettier by the changed sounds, correct verb tenses a small sacrifice for rhythm. But I liked the Spanish best. Although I understood none of it, I knew it did more than just allow the Lopez clan to talk to each other, and they were always talking to each other. Somewhere in the roll of the r’s and whisper of the s’s, there was something more. There was Cuba. Exotic. Troubled. Inaccessilbe. Blurred behind the murky green of the television screen in the living room as my father watched the evening news. But life at the Lopez house was so vivid. I spent so much time there that my parents said I began to look like Elena, and her parents affirmed this: “Eres Cubana, si?” they would say to me. I heard this question echoed again and again thirty years later when I visited the island, still flattered by the comparison but prouder that—other than my very round nose—I had grown to look so much like my father.

All things Cuban—frijoles con arroz, even in Mexico; the Buena Vista Social Club CDs, miniature bananas in clusters, any person, dog, cat, or other named Ricky—continue to remind me of the Lopez family. But then many things not-Cuban do as well. The green plaid of Catholic school uniforms brushing the knees of chattering girls who parade the sidewalk of my neighborhood. My father scrambling eggs in his plaid bathrobe on Saturday mornings. Hair barrettes that clip rather than fasten. Day lilies growing in clumps down the side of houses. I know now that Cuba is inexorably tied to my past, where the Lopezes, their mere different-ness, their fluctuation and possibility, completed a childhood made for a picture book. See Spot run. El año que viene en Cuba. Nostalgia translates, no eraser needed. The ear bends, the heart quickens. How oddly rational it was that the first person I thought off in stepping off the plane in Cuba was not Elena Lopez, but my father, dead then almost ten years, who always tousled Elena’s hair when she came to our house and asked, playfully, what she ate to grow those tiny gold hoops in her ears and the pink on her toenails. Had he been alive, he would have toasted my travel adventures with the very best Havana Club rum. He would have been proud that I speak Spanish, though badly, and was able to barter in my second language for Monte Cristo cigars on street corners in Cuba hopefully unnoticed. His banker blood—and Mrs. Lopez’s Cuban—did not go completely to waste.

Several years ago, before the recession, I ran into Elena in a viaduct between office buildings in downtown Charlotte, where sunlight reflects off surfaces so clean and pristine it is hard not to be reminded that much of the city was literally rebuilt within the last twenty years. Bank money. A sure bet, as my father used to say, at least for a while. Elena wore panty hose, a teal blue power suit with a small slit cut into the back of a straight skirt, and sunglasses. A plastic-coated Bank of America name tag around her neck, which is how I recognized her, that and the smile that used to trade flan.

“I went to Cuba last summer,” I announced just minutes into our conversation. As middle-aged women, our childhood familiarity with each other was not as easy to recall as my memories of it.

“Why?” she asked.

I looked around at the glass and chrome, the clean lines of progress and thought about how, in Cuba, I had studied the Havana sidewalks to avoid stepping into the blackness of the prolific potholes. Such distraction was a shame on many levels, not the least of which was missing the varied shades of pink and blue of the surrounding neo-classical architecture, crumbling but still regal.

“I wanted to see it, and I had the chance to go with a group of professors on an academic visa,” I answered. “But we were really just tourists. We didn’t do much research. It’s hard to study something so close up.”

“I’ll go one day,” she said. “I need to.”

She used the word “need” in a characteristically American way, a meaning caught somewhere between a moral debt and wistful optimism. “I need to go to Cuba,” I heard one of the other students in my salsa class say the week before, her hips much better suited for debutante dancing. But that’s not need. Need is yearning; need is essential. It is a power to be heeded. For Elena, could that need have become the comfort of understanding her parents, her own history, finally, ultimately, maybe even shamefully? What child is not faced with this challenge? What mother, or motherland, expects its completion? What father?

My friend Olga might know. Before finally “retiring” at the age of 90, she taught me Spanish off and on for ten years, sympathizing with my inability to trill, triumphant when I carried out a six-month relationship with a man who spoke only Spanish and wrote him the long break-up e-mail in his native language with only one grammatical error. Mostly, however, she taught me about learning to accept. “Hay que resolver,” they would say in Cuba, referring to the difficulties of daily life, the trading of tennis shoes for beans, or the circuitous currency exchange that encompasses goods, relatives, tourists, and a little bit of grace before it finally turns pesos into dollars, a currency more powerful than memory. “Tenemos que aceptar,” Olga used to say. We have to accept.

Olga developed the crooked angles of a woman who carried her past, the weight of memory working its way from the hook in her nose to the arc of her back. She left Cuba on January 6, 1962, the month that Cuba was suspended from the Organization of American States, two months before Castro began food rationing on the island, three days before Elena Lopez was born, and coincidentally, the day after I was born. “We almost have the same birthday,” Olga once told me, “because leaving my country, I was born again. Not reborn. Born again when everything must be learned.”

It’s true. Olga even had to relearn parenthood. Her son Joaquín was one of the first boys in Operacíon Pedro Pan (Peter Pan), an exodus of over 14,000 Cuban boys whose parents wanted to avoid having their children grow up under a totalitarian regime. When he arrived in the United States at only twelve years old, Joaquín lived in a foster home in Wisconsin, near a cattle farm, far from his home of Matanzas, with its airy breezes and thick-columned porches. He did not want to come; his father had to literally carry him onto the plane. When Olga and her eight-year old daughter finally arrived in the US, almost one year after him, Joaquín spoke English with a subtle Midwestern accent and took on the role of parent, showing Olga how to live in the United States, how to buy stamps at the post office, how to convert kilograms into cups, how to allot Americans their assumed elbow room on sidewalks and in grocery store aisles. Olga, her son, and her daughter settled at first in Miami, where Joaquín’s lessons could be slower, where all lessons lost some of their urgency, muffled behind the make-do Cuba of Little Havana.

Still, it was hard. Olga, a teacher by profession, worked as a seamstress while her children grew into American adolescents. The rest of the story is not all that unique from what, ironically, still takes place in Cuba. Olga, a trained professional, college-educated, and ambitious, sewed at home in her small apartment. Then Olga traded the sewing machine for the buzz of busy minds: she earned a Ph.D. from Emory University, taught hundreds of high school and language school classes, learned to love her new country. She remained the exemplary teacher. As a Spanish student at a Cuban-run language school in Atlanta, I met her the year before my father died. The flowers she sent to his funeral were on the far right among the arrangements lining the altar. From so many, I remember them because from the front pew I could see that the small white card tucked into a red gladiola was written in Spanish.

In the years, during those weekly Spanish lessons around a metal table in a deteriorating Atlanta office building, I came to know much about Olga’s life in Cuba. She had to participate in only one promenade around Matanzas’ Plaza Libertad, where, with her father’s permission, she relinquished señorita for señora, accepting her husband, whom she describes as the kindest man she has ever known. A good father. Not perfect, but good, even throughout his own slow death from cancer, almost twenty-five years before my father’s. Before her husband and with her husband, she slept for all of her life on the island under mosquito netting draped from a huge four-poster bed carved by her Spanish-born grandfather. She ate ice cream, with Joaquín’s small hand in hers, each weekend trip there, in Havana’s infamous Copelia ice cream parlor where years later I witnessed how only those with dollars are allowed such decadence, where lines literally a mile long would wrap around the blocks beyond the tiny shop—like a tail forgetting where it’s attached. Before Emory, Olga earned a degree at the University of Havana, in keeping with many women of her era in Cuba, way ahead of the what we American women would call the feminist movement, a movement that seemed to the Cubans I met to be more about practicality and decency than any “ism” in search of a struggle.

But more than anything else, I learned of Olga’s love of the ocean, competitive with my father’s, derived from summers spent at Varadero. Once, in an on-going argument with a Brazilian student about the world’s most beautiful beach, Olga boasted that Varadero had sand whiter than her wedding gown. I saw it for myself. Despite my father’s best intentions, I have never put much stock in white wedding gowns, but I walked on, sat on, lay on that very sand and knew that I would take Olga’s side once back in class.

Olga never returned home. Hatred of Castro (and his brother) and sadness for Cuba’s deterioration will forever separate her from her homeland. She won’t go back. She would not even request anything when I asked if there were something that she would like me to bring back. “Okay,” I said, “I’ll just bring back Cuba.” How stupidly arrogant of me—to want to reclaim her Cuba, work that even Mrs. Lopez, much more equipped than I, could not bring to fruition in Elena.

I understand now that I went to Cuba anyway, for Elena, for Olga, and for myself. Maybe, more realistically, I went for my father. Charlotte is his birthplace, where he lies buried beside his parents. I do not visit his grave as often as I should. As a writer, I know how place—home—connects desire and story, all those lines on maps so unnecessary when there are lines on paper to fill. Perhaps I write others’ stories to avoid his, memory doing its fickle work. He waits, in Cuba fashion, again for his glory. He waits for my return.